On the morning of the day the Yom Kippur War broke out, October 6, 1973, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan opposed a general call-up of the reserves because of the possible political fallout, reveals a recently declassified document.
Senior defense officials acted on an abbreviated version of the warning issued by an associate of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Ashraf Marwan, to Mossad head Zvi Zamir, show records kept by Dayan’s office. The version that Zamir’s bureau chief Alfred (“Freddy”) Eini gave Dayan, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David Elazar and MI chief Eli Zeira stated unequivocally that Sadat had decided to open fire.
However, Zamir himself said in his memoires that Marwan had elaborated that if political or military conditions were different, “Sadat might stop everything.” Not having this portion of the document, the military leadership did not discuss the possibility of adopting a different policy.
Near the end of the meeting, which took place between 5:45 A.M. and 7 A.M., Zeira joined the group and reported that “Syria had moved up its artillery and tanks,” to positions that were “more offensive than defensive,” that “in Egypt the forces are deployed for defense and attack,” and that “there is no movement of planes for the purposes of attack.”
Zeira added that there was a great deal of confusion in both Egypt and Syria, “which we know of ahead of war, like in 1967. From a political point of view, Sadat has no reason to go to war and so there is a contradiction. The impression is that Egypt and Syria are coordinated. Either this is a coordinated exercise or coordinated war.”
After the war, MI officers claimed that Zeira had prevented the dissemination of information from a cable that had been intercepted from the Iraqi military attache in Moscow, which conveyed a warning to Baghdad about a war, which the attache had received from his Soviet contacts. However, the document from Dayan’s bureau contradicts these claims. It quotes a report from Zeira to Dayan and Elazar about information (whose source is censored, but over the weekend it was confirmed to Haaretz that it was the same cable from Moscow).
“We have been informed that the Russians are evacuating Syria because Syria and Egypt are going to attack. He is not the most reliable, but this is what he reports.”
The details of the meeting in Dayan’s office have been known for years. However, considering the newly disclosed document, which was apparently written by the defense minister’s adjutant, Col. Aryeh Baron, it seems surprising that the Agranat Commission that investigated the Yom Kippur War placed responsibility on MI for Israel’s having been caught by surprise.
The document reveals that even after Dayan and Elazar received what they thought to be a credible threat of war 12 hours after their meeting, they were not concerned that the conscript forces stationed on the Golan and in Sinai would collapse. “Conscript [forces are] all manned,” Elazar said.
Dayan thought that beefing up the Golan Heights with one brigade would be enough to halt the Syrian advance.
Dayan was concerned that the United States would oppose a preemptive strike, while Elazar wanted a general call-up in order to launch an offensive within hours of the attack, according to the document. Prime Minister Golda Meir sided with Elazar, but by then, three precious hours had passed.
Elazar wanted to draft all four reserves divisions “so that the whole world will know we’re ready to go to war.”
Dayan wanted to draft only two: one in the north and one in the south. Dayan’s remarks show he was working based on intelligence assessments that led him to conclude that a later call-up was more prudent.
“The question is when is the last hour, and I’ll have to talk to Golda,” he reportedly said.
“This could be politically damaging, because they’ll say we were about to go to war and calling up the reserves was an act of war. Good, let’s go to Golda for a decision. It would be a huge scandal if we called up everyone. For defense, we have no choice,” the document quotes him as saying.
What concerned Dayan most was not the situation on the front lines in the north and south, but rather the situation in the occupied territories. After noting that the intelligence from Marwan was highly credible, he said he preferred to deal first with small things “such as evacuating children from the settlements under the guise of a trip.”
The document shows that the IDF, especially the Air Force, thought the cabinet would agree to a preemptive strike. But Dayan was against this option unless both intelligence assessments and troop movements warranted it.
“We said at the time that if we were sure they were going to war, then we don’t have to wait, but if it was only based on [intelligence] then we can’t,” he reportedly said.
Elazar then asked Dayan’s military secretary, Col. Yehoshua Raviv, what Marwan had said to Zamir. Raviv replied: “The planned action will start tonight. Sadat can’t go back.”
Dayan then called Eini to confirm what Marwan had said; Eini confirmed the timing. He then said to Elazar: “If we see something preliminary in Egypt, we don’t have to wait, we have the right to start with the Syrians ... We are in a political situation whereby we can’t do what we did in 1967, but if the Egyptians start, we can attack the Syrians, even if it’s quiet there.”
Elazar wanted to launch a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria, but Dayan said: “The answer is no.” He cited among other things the fact that the Americans were opposed to such an attack on Syria, even if Egypt had launched an attack.
Dayan was also concerned that efforts to obtain more precise intelligence would be risky.
Zeira reported that aerial photos showed that ground-to-air missiles had been moved up to the Suez Canal, and Dayan responded that this could help the Egyptians cross the canal. Elazar said he wanted to photograph around the canal and send an unmanned aircraft to photograph deeper into Syria but Dayan said: “There’s a chance they’ll shoot it down. It won’t be good if they shoot it down and it will give them an excuse; I propose that we do not cross the border.”